Spectre of indictment looms large
For the time being, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition is stable as none of its partners have spoken against him.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival in the wake of recommendations by the police to indict him on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in two corruption cases, rendering not just an embarrassing blow to him but also likely to fuel calls for his resignation.
Netanyahu, a dominant figure in Israeli politics, has rejected the accusations, which included accepting nearly $300,000 in gifts from two billionaires allegedly in the form jewelry, crates of champagne, and boxes of Cuban cigars. He accused police of being on a witch-hunt and vowed to remain in office and even seek re-election, due next year.
"I will continue to lead the state of Israel responsibly and loyally as long as you, the citizens of Israel, choose me to lead you," Netanyahu said in a televised address on February 13, an hour after police told his lawyers about their recommendations. "I am sure that the truth will come to light. And I am sure that also in the next election that will take place on time I will win your trust again, with God's help."
Although most members of Netanyahu's inner circle seem to stand behind him, one of his confidant, Shlomo Filber, according to Israeli media, has agreed to turn state witness in one of several investigations, threatening his political survival.
Filber was appointed by Netanyahu to head the Communications Ministry. He was arrested recently along with top executives at Bezeq Telecom, Israel's largest telecommunications company. His decision could leave the tough-talking Netanyahu at his most vulnerable situation yet.
Without giving the source, Israeli media reported that Filber has now agreed to testify for the state in the case in which police allege that Bezeq's owners offered favourable coverage on media they controlled in return for favours from regulators. Bezeq, its owners and executives deny any wrongdoing.
Netanyahu has questioned the integrity of police investigators saying they could not be trusted and accusing them of trying to thwart the electorate's will and bring down a serving Prime Minister. Ironically, the police chief Roni Alsheikh was picked up by him to head the force perhaps hoping that the favour would be paid in loyalty.
The police recommendations marked a dramatic ending to a more than year-long investigation into allegations that Netanyahu accepted gifts from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer, and suspicions that he offered to give preferential treatment to a newspaper publisher in exchange for favorable coverage.
The recommendations have been handed over to Attorney General Avihai Mendelblit, who will review the material before deciding whether to file charges against a sitting Prime Minister for the first time.
In a statement, police said their investigation found sufficient evidence to indict Netanyahu in the first case, known as 'File 1000,' for accepting bribes, fraud, and breach of trust.
It said Netanyahu had accepted gifts valued at 750,000 shekels ($214,000) from Milchan, and 250,000 shekels ($71,000) from Packer. The gifts from Milchan reportedly included expensive cigars and champagne.
Police said that in return, Netanyahu had operated on Milchan's behalf on U.S. visa matters and legislated a tax break. It said he also helped Milchan, an Israeli producer whose credits include 'Pretty Woman', '12 Years a Slave' and 'JFK,' in the Israeli media market.
In the second case, known as 'File 2000,' Netanyahu reportedly was recorded asking Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the Yediot Ahronot daily, for positive coverage in exchange for promoting legislation that would weaken a free newspaper that had cut into Yediot's business.
Police said there was sufficient evidence to charge both Milchan and Mozes with bribery. Channel 10 TV read a statement that it said came from Milchan's "defence team" saying the bribery charge would not stand.
For the time being, Netanyahu's coalition is stable as none of its partners have spoken against him. Key members of Netanyahu's Likud Party have rallied behind him. Observers say probably they are waiting for the attorney general's decision whether to indict before coming out against him.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a bitter rival of Netanyahu, has asked Netanyahu's resignation saying, "the depth of corruption is horrifying."
The Attorney General may take his own time to decide on the police recommendations and Netanyahu can remain in office during that process.
During similar circumstances a decade ago, Netanyahu, as opposition leader, had asked the then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign during a police investigation, saying a leader "sunk up to his neck in interrogations" could not govern properly.
Some observers say that it would be better if Netanyahu, who first came to power in 1996-1999 and again has been servicing as Prime Minister since 2009, resigns before an indictment is issued, as happened in the case of Olmert, who was jailed for corruption.
So far he has not given any indication to step down. There is no precedent in Israel of any Prime Minister continuing in office during indictment. In 1977, Yitzhak Rabin had resigned rather than being charged for holding money in an overseas bank account and not declaring it to the tax authorities.
Netanyahu is no stranger to investigations. In 1997, during his first term, police wanted him to stand trial in an influence-peddling case involving the appointment of an attorney general. While he was between terms, police recommended in 2000 that he and his wife Sara be prosecuted on suspicion of bribery and theft of state gifts. Neither of the recommendations culminated in charges.
Arab countries are watching the development with immense interest. According to Arab observers, Netanyahu's fall from the pinnacle of power would be of great service to the cause of peace not only on the Palestine front but also regionally. The peace process between Israel and Palestine has been stalled since Netanyahu's assumption of power more than a decade ago. Of course, there is no guarantee that any future Israeli leader would be any different or more forthcoming in engaging the Palestinians in serious and fruitful peace talks.
(M Shakeel Ahmed is former Editor, PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal)